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Increasing calcium scarcity along Afrotropical forest succession


Secondary forests constitute an increasingly important component of tropical forests worldwide. Although cycling of essential nutrients affects recovery trajectories of secondary forests, the effect of nutrient limitation on forest regrowth is poorly constrained. Here we use three lines of evidence from secondary forest succession sequences in central Africa to identify potential nutrient limitation in regrowing forests. First, we show that atmospheric phosphorus supply exceeds demand along forest succession, whereas forests rely on soil stocks to meet their base cation demands. Second, soil nutrient metrics indicate that available phosphorus increases along the succession, whereas available cations decrease. Finally, fine root, foliar and litter stoichiometry show that tissue calcium concentrations decline relative to those of nitrogen and phosphorus during succession. Taken together, these observations suggest that calcium becomes an increasingly scarce resource in central African forests during secondary succession. Furthermore, ecosystem calcium storage shifts from soil to woody biomass over succession, making it a vulnerable nutrient in the wake of land-use change scenarios that involve woody biomass export. Our results thus call for a broadened focus on elements other than nitrogen and phosphorus regarding tropical forest biogeochemical cycles and identify calcium as a scarce and potentially limiting nutrient in an increasingly disturbed and dynamic tropical forest landscape.

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Fig. 1: Nutrient balance and vegetation demand of N, P, Ca, K and Mg along a tropical forest succession from 5-year-old forest (5 yr) to 60-year-old forest (60 yr).
Fig. 2: Soil nutrient availability in the 0–10 cm layer along tropical forest succession from agriculture (Ag) over 60-year-old forest (60 yr) to old-growth forest (OG).
Fig. 3: Plant tissue mass-based stoichiometric ratios along tropical forest succession, from 5-year-old forest (5 yr) to old-growth forest (OG).
Fig. 4: Total nutrient stocks for N, P, Ca, K and Mg in wood, in the upper 10 cm of soil and in the wood and soil together along forest succession, from agriculture (Ag) over 60-year-old forest (60 yrs) to old-growth forest (OG).

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M.B. is funded by the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO) Flanders, through a postdoctoral fellowship. We thank the people of the Yoko village for the long-lasting collaboration and safeguarding of our equipment in the experimental forest.

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Authors and Affiliations



M. Bauters, P.B., K.V. and I.A.J. conceived the study. I.A.M., M. Bauters and C.E. carried out and oversaw the field work and set up the permanent sampling units, with help for maintenance from S.B., T.W.D. and M. Barthel. M.G., D.W. and S.D. analysed the soil samples. P.V. analysed the plant tissue samples. M. Bauters, P.B., K.V.O., I.A.M., J.S., M. Barthel, C.E., T.W.D. and S.B. have provided logistical support for the field work. M. Bauters analysed the data and wrote the paper, with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Marijn Bauters.

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Bauters, M., Janssens, I.A., Wasner, D. et al. Increasing calcium scarcity along Afrotropical forest succession. Nat Ecol Evol 6, 1122–1131 (2022).

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